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By Mike Angelina
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The Philadelphia Phillies are about to enter the most uncertain stretch of their most uncertain season in nearly 15 years. Unable to consistently play .500 or better baseball, the team will have a few major decisions to make as they approach the trade deadline.
Four of their starting eight position players are unsigned beyond the 2013 season. Three of the five members of the opening day rotation do not have a guaranteed contract for 2014.
And of course, Charlie Manuel will see his contract expire once the current season ends. It seems unlikely Manuel is asked to return for the 2014 season, and becoming more possible he could be relieved mid-season. According to Bovada, Charlie Manuel is the manager most likely to be fired this season. The online gambling site sets the odds at 4-1 that Manuel is the first to be relieved of his duties, in-season.
You only fire a manager because you are confident that the replacement will do a significantly better job. Teams typically replace fired managers with in-house candidates. Problem is, there is not much reason to be confident that an in-house guy would do a significantly better job than Manuel.
For three years now, the growing expectation is that the Phillies already have Manuel’s replacement secured, and that when he goes, Ryne Sandberg will be promoted to the helm. Sandberg served as Triple-A affiliate Lehigh Valley’s manager for two seasons before being added to the 2013 major league coaching staff. Now, he looks in at Manuel roughly 100 feet away from the third base coaching box, seemingly staring into his next spot.
So, what makes people confident that Sandberg would be the man to turn to in such a critical period in the course of the franchise?
Frankly, there is no evidence. The only thing it seems he has going for him is that he was good at playing the game, but even that is a hollow reason and does not indicate his ability to manage and strategize throughout a season. In fact, only one Hall of Famer has even made the transition to becoming a skipper after being elected to Cooperstown. That was Ted Williams, and for what it’s worth, Teddy Ballgame managed his teams to play the ball game to a 273-364 record.
Sandberg has a certain stink now attached to him having been skipped over twice, by two different general managers, for the Chicago Cubs’ managerial position in recent years. Even more telling is that he was a minor league manager in the organization in a period the club was rebuilding. One would think he would know the young talent whom he coached in the minors better than anyone, and yet he still was not a good enough candidate.
The organization for whom he became a legend chose Mike Quade and Dale Sveum over him, not exactly Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. The two combined to have managed only 12 big-league games (including zero from Quade), so lack of experience at the helm clearly was not the deceive reason for Sandberg not being chosen. Furthermore, he was passed over by the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as the Boston Red Sox in the Fall of 2011, who elected to go with Bobby Valentine over him.
Have previous teams missed the boat on Sandberg, or is there just something missing from Sandberg?
Being promoted to third-base coach and infield instructor after the 2012 season is the closest Sandberg has ever been to being a major league manager. Even with those two responsibilities, he’s done a poor job and has shown absolutely no reason why he should be a manager.
As third-base coach, he has struggled with his decision-making, and has cast doubt as to whether he can make good in-game decisions, approach certain plays and moves correctly, and understand and estimate the abilities of the players.
The Phillies have been thrown out on plays at the plate, not including force-outs, ten times this season, one behind the Major League Baseball team high of 11. In recent weeks, he has been especially brutal in the third base box, making five mistakes in a two week period. Among the many miscalculations were sending Delmon Young, one of the five slowest players in the league, home on a hard-hit ball to the outfield with the top of the order coming up. Two other times, he sent the third out of an inning to be called out at the plate in the midst of Domonic Brown’s torrid two-week stretch with Brown due to bat next.
It’s decisions like this that demonstrate not just poor judgment, but a lack of awareness, flawed logic and poor anticipation. Do you want a manager who has demonstrated those traits?
And for his other duty, infield instructor, it arguably cost them a big game on Wednesday against the Nationals. Going for the sweep against the 2012 National League East champs, Ryan Howard being in at first base too much keyed a Washington comeback. Denard Span was able to reach on an infield hit as a result.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon after the game said he was surprised with where Howard was positioned after the game.
“I was thinking on a 3-1 count our infield would be back and I was expecting to turn around and run to first base and catch a underhand throw,” Papelbon said.
He has a point. The two possible explanations why Sandberg had Howard positioned there would be he was expecting a bunt despite a 3-1 hitter’s count, or he simply was not paying attention. Span, by the way, has bunted for a hit only twice this season before the ninth inning June 19–one on a 0-1 count, the other on a 0-0 count. Either reason is not particularly promising for a future manager. Papelbon would go on to emphasize how crucial the little things like poor judgment in decisions such as positioning can be.
“There’s 150 pitches thrown by our pitchers and before every one of those we have to make sure we’re putting ourselves in a position to be the best we can before each pitch,” Papelbon said.
There is an overwhelming pile of evidence as to why Sandberg would struggle as manager, much more than reasons to expect him to be a good candidate. Whether Charlie Manuel deserves to be fired or not is a different argument, but whether his replacement would do a better job should be considered the priority in the thought process. And right now, we have absolutely no reason to be convinced that Ryne Sandberg would do a significantly better job with decisions.
So if the Phillies want Manuel gone, they’ll have to go outside the organization to find a better candidate. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of hiring someone you have no confidence is a better decision maker and leader? That should be the focus in the discussions for making the decision for who to manage not just the remainder of 2013, but beyond.
Phillies fans can only hope management has enough sense to put the stop sign up, and not wave Sandberg into the position as liberally as he waves Delmon Young home into an out. Because as the decision is coming to the plate, we have no reason to believe Sandberg is going be a “safe” hire.
Mike Angelina is a Producer at 94 WIP-FM / 610 WIP-AM and contributes to CBS Philly on both local and national sports. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeAngelina